What Kind of Creative Are You?: A Theory on Creativity

What can designers learn about the creative process from an economist? A great deal, surprisingly.

David W. Galenson, a noted professor of economics at the University of Chicago, is the author of "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity" (Princeton University Press). In the recently released book, Galenson argues that there are two distinct creative types that employ two fundamentally different approaches to artistic innovation.

He posits that experimental innovators (old masters) work by trial and error and make their major contributions late in their careers, while conceptual innovators (young geniuses) have flashes of brilliance and enjoy major artistic breakthroughs at young ages. Galenson examines and classifies the creative approaches and career trajectories of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Edgar Degas and Mark Rothko, in addition to famous poets, novelists, filmmakers and sculptors. HOW recently interviewed Galenson about his thought-provoking book.

How did you first become interested in studying the life cycles of artistic creativity?
I was buying a painting that had been done about 10 years before, and the question arose of whether it should be more or less valuable than the artist’s current work. I was intrigued by the question, and I began analyzing auction data for several dozen painters. To my surprise, some did their most valuable paintings early in their careers, others late. This research started with the question of why these profiles were different. I wasn’t interested in creativity; I was interested in the question of why some artists get better as they get older and some artists don’t.

Your research suggests that there are two types of artists, in terms of creativity: experimental innovators and conceptual innovators. What sets them apart, and how do you differentiate between each of them?
The two types of innovators have different goals and use different methods. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goals. They are uncertain about how to reach them, so they work tentatively, through trial and error. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, gradually changing its treatment in an incremental, experimental process.

They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it. They typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Adjectives I use to describe experimental innovators include empirical, realistic, uncertain, cautious, persistent, wise and mature.

In contrast, artists who have made conceptual innovations have been motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can usually be stated precisely, before its production. They make detailed preparatory sketches or plans for their paintings.

Conceptual innovations appear suddenly. A new idea immediately produces a result quite different from other artists’ work and from the artist’s own previous work. Adjectives I use to describe conceptual innovators include abstract, theoretical, imaginative, precocious, certain, versatile, brash and iconoclastic.

You place Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol in the "conceptual" camp? What do these two artists share?
Both Picasso and Warhol could plan their works in advance, before beginning to execute them. They knew what each work was intended to accomplish. As Picasso said, "I paint what I think, not what I see."

Likewise, you put Paul Cezanne and Jackson Pollock in the "experimental" group. What do they have in common?
Cezanne and Pollock were both seekers: They were unsure of their goals, but they knew they hadn’t reached them. They worked tentatively, first painting, and then looking at what they had done, before continuing. They both wanted to make discoveries during the process of making their paintings.

Do all creative people fall into these two categories? Or do many people float somewhere in between? Or are others in a completely different creative spectrum altogether?
I believe that everybody falls somewhere along a continuum, from extremely conceptual (highly abstract) through moderately conceptual to moderately experimental to extremely experimental (highly inductive).

Let’s say there’s a two-person design firm run by one person who’s an experimental innovator, while the other is a conceptual innovator. Would you expect there to be tension? How could the principals effectively leverage their differences?
It’s difficult for the two types to collaborate, and they rarely do. Artists often work with other artists of the same type, and the same is true of scholars. Conceptual people want to plan in advance, by working from abstract, general principles, whereas experimentalists just want to start working on a problem and build up gradually. The people we are attracted to intellectually are almost always the same type we are.

Design professionals constantly strive to find ways to keep their creative batteries charged. In your research, did you uncover any methods for boosting one’s creative output?
Increasing your creativity depends first on recognizing whether you are conceptual or experimental.

Experimental people improve with experience and should be concerned with using the skills they have acquired over time. If conceptual innovators are sprinters, important experimental innovators are marathoners. Their greatest successes are the result of long periods of gradual improvement of their skills and accumulation of expertise. Persistence in following a line of research is a virtue for experimental innovators, even when others may perceive this as stubbornness.

It is crucial for experimental artists and scholars to recognize what their skills are, so they can select new problems that are sufficiently similar in structure or substance to the techniques they have developed and the knowledge they have acquired in the past. Unfortunately, appreciation of their work by others usually comes more slowly, and later in their lives than for their conceptual peers. But experimentalists have to resist the temptation to try to compete with conceptual practitioners of their own disciplines by changing problems frequently. If they persist, they may find that their reward is a growing mastery of their work.

In contrast, my analysis implies that the enemies of conceptual innovators are the establishment of fixed habits of thought and the growing awareness of their disciplines’ complexity. Conceptual people should try to avoid getting stuck in a rut and move to new problems where they can have new ideas and are unable to draw on their earlier innovations in tackling them. The more radically they change problems, the greater the potential for large new innovations.

HOW August 2006